According to John Walton, the seventh day of the Genesis creation account can be something of a theological afterthought. “It appears to be nothing more than an afterthought with theological concerns about Israelites observing the sabbath—an appendix, a postscript, a tack on.” There is a literary structure to the first six days in Genesis 1 that C. John Collins called “exalted prose,” but the pattern ends there. Then we hear that God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day. But what does God resting have to do with creation? And why would God rest? It’s not as if He was actually tired from all his creative activity. Then what does it mean for God to rest?
Walton believes that rest is the objective of creation. In fact, without the seventh day of rest, the other six days of Genesis 1 don’t achieve their full meaning. “Even though people are the climax of the six days, day seven is the climax of this origins account.” To make his point, he turned to Scripture. The Hebrew word for “rested” in Genesis 2:2 is šābat, which means to sever, put an end to, cease. The English term “Sabbath” is derived from it.
In Deuteronomy 12:10, God told the Israelites that when they crossed over the Jordan and lived in the land He was giving them, they would have rest from their enemies and live in safety. After Moses died and Joshua was preparing the Israelites to cross the Jordan, he told them to remember what Moses had told them about the Lord providing them a place of rest. As Joshua was about to release the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh to return across the Jordan to their lands, the narrator said the Lord had given them rest on every side, just as He said He would (Josh 21:44). When David saw that the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies, he thought he would build a house for the Lord to dwell in (2 Samuel 7:1-2).
The rest that God offers his people is freedom from invasion and conflict. Now they can live at peace and conduct their daily lives without interruption. “It refers to achieving a state of order in society.” When Jesus invited those who were weary and burdened to come to him, he offered them rest (Matthew 11:28). He invited people to participate in the ordered kingdom of God, where their yoke would be easy and their burden light. The author of Hebrews looked to a future rest, where anyone who entered it would rest from their works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:10-11).
In light of this usage, we can discern that resting pertains to the security and stability found in equilibrium of an ordered system. When God rests on the seventh day, he is taking up his residence in the ordered system that he has brought about in the previous six days. It is not something that he does only on the seventh day; it is what he does every day thereafter. Furthermore, his rest is not just a matter of having a place of residence—he is exercising his control over this ordered system where he intends to relate to people whom he has placed there and for whom he has made the system to function.
God was not only making a home for the people He created in His image when He created the cosmos, he was making a home for himself. But in the ancient world, the temple was not only the residence of a god, it was the throne room from which the god ruled and maintained order. So an ancient reader, according to Walton, would have recognized Genesis 1 (referring to Genesis 1:1-2:3) as a temple story or text. Temple-building accounts often accompanied cosmologies. After he established order, which was the focus of ancient cosmologies, the deity “took control of that ordered system.” When the deity rests in the temple, he is assuming his rightful place and his proper role—he is assuming the throne.
This is the element that we are sadly missing when we read the Genesis account. God has ordered the cosmos with the purpose of taking up his residence in it and ruling over it. Day seven is the reason for days one through six. It is the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
God built the cosmos to be sacred space, and the account in Genesis 1 is an account of the origins of sacred space rather than an account of the origins of the material cosmos. Rather than an ancient temple where people could relate to their god by ritually meeting his needs, “God built the cosmos to be sacred space and then put people in that sacred space as a place where he could be in relationship with them.”
What I’ve presented above are ideas and quotes from John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. His views of Genesis 1 and 2 have their critics, but I’ve found his argument stimulating in a number of different ways. You can introduce yourself to his thought here, in a series of articles and even a video series on the evolutionary creation website, BioLogos. His interpretation of Genesis is certainly consistent with evolutionary creation, but exists independent of it. You can accept his understanding of Genesis without becoming an evolutionary creationist.
I think his sense of Genesis 1 as a temple text fits nicely with a redemptive historical understanding of Scripture as a whole. And I think it could fit there as follows.
Walton sees Genesis 1 as God building a sacred space, a temple, in which He would also place people so He could be in relationship with them. In Genesis 2 and even into Genesis 3, we see the reality of this fellowship with God. Then as a consequence of their sin, God drove Adam and Eve from the sacred space of the Garden (Genesis 3:23-24). However, this was not the end of his plan to be in relationship with people. Even before their sin, God had already begun to point them to the work of redemption He would accomplish in His Son.
In Genesis 2, He made a helper for the man because He saw that it was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Presented with the woman, the man said: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Here God instituted biblical marriage. The following comment on this action by God—“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24)—will later be quoted by Paul in Ephesians 5:31. Paul saw this action by God in Genesis 2 as a mystery referring to Christ and the church. The coming of Christ revealed that God’s establishment of biblical marriage was a protoevangelium, if you will.
In Genesis 3, is the judgment statement against the serpent has been understood by many since Justin and Irenaeus in the 2nd century as the protoevangelium: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The protoevangelium is the first (proto) gospel (evangelion); the first reference in Scripture of the idea of a Messiah. So before God put the man and the woman out of the Garden, He gave them two hints of his future plans in Christ.
After Moses completed the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and when Solomon had finished his prayer dedicating the temple ((2 Chronicles 7:1-2), these structures were filled with the presence of the Lord and became sacred space. In Ezekiel’s vision of the temple, the glory of the Lord filled the temple and the Lord said the place of his throne and the place where he will dwell will be in the midst of the people forever (Ezekiel 43:4-7).
Then in Christ, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus called people to Him that they might have rest (Matthew 11:28), for he is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). When he ascended into heaven, he sat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19). When he returns, he will return the same way as he left (Acts 1:11). His return will be to fulfill the mystery of Genesis 2:24, revealed in Christ (Ephesians 5:32)—the marriage supper of the Lamb, and his bride, the church (Revelations 19:7).
In the new heaven and new earth, in this new sacred space, God will fulfill His intent to dwell with his people: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelations 21:3). There will not be a temple in this New Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb, because its temple is the Lord God and the Lamb (Revelations 21:22). The Sabbath rest of Exodus 20:11 will be made manifest. The seventh day of the Genesis creation account will have reached its zenith.
For more articles on creation in the Bible, see the link “Genesis & Creation.”